Each April, hundreds of thousands flock to the California desert. Donned in either glitter, flower crowns and bohemian dresses or crop tops, jean cut-offs and cowboy boots, these music lovers enjoy live acts, art installations and craft cocktails in the middle of nowhere.
But festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach aren’t the only reason to visit these Southern California landscapes. Don’t get me wrong—I love a weekend camping out and dancing to country music. However, California’s desert has plenty of outdoor beauty and unique destinations to experience all year round.
A Literal Desert Oasis
Situated on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, the Fortynine Palms Oasis hike puts other treks to shame. A trail winds along the rocks and barrel cacti, working its way upward for sweeping views of the California desert. Once we stopped for some photos at the top, we worked our way down the other side of the hill. Then, a mild walk amongst some jagged, rust-colored rocks and dry brush led us toward the oasis.
We could spot the palm trees in the distance, growing closer and closer as we wandered. The vibrant greenery stood out like a sore thumb amid the sandy beiges and browns of the desert landscape. Once we reached these emerald beacons, we sat down to enjoy some snacks—a much needed rest for the one-year-old hiking with our group that insisted on using her own two feet the whole way there.
We climbed up the oversize boulders and made our way up to two small pools just as it started sprinkling. As the drops hit the water below, the smell of rain and dirt meshed together for a fresh scent that you can only find when you’re immersed in nature. We slowly made our way back over the hill and to the parking lot as the rain continued to fall, offering a break in the usual California desert heat.
Exploration with a Backdrop
Another spot that is great for outdoor adventures and offers stunning backdrops is Indian Cove. Also on the north end of Joshua Tree, this area isn’t far from the oasis. If you’re looking for hiking trails in the California desert, you’ll find a few at Indian Cove.
But what this spot is really known for is its massive boulders. The sand-colored granite rocks are stunning, and a major draw for rock climbers. There are plenty of routes within the park to entice climbers, whether they’re looking for simple or strenuous ascents. In addition to providing recreation, the rocks make a beautiful setting for photo shoots.
Indian Cove also has a spacious area that serves as a campground. Flat, sandy campsites are complemented by the rocks, which add a bit of privacy, while the distance from town makes it perfect for stargazing. Plan a trip during a meteor shower for an even more impressive evening.
Native Plants and Animals Galore
For something a little more mild that the whole family can enjoy together, head to Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. Located not too far from Desert Hot Springs, this is an easy daytrip from the ritzy city of Palm Springs.
While unique for the California desert, the park features both cottonwood and willow riparian habitats. A stream runs through the park and trails crisscross the land, making it easy to complete more than one during a single visit. Each offers a different type of landscape to explore, complete with varied trees, plants and cacti.
There are six trails in all, ranging from 1 mile to more than 8. While we chose not to opt for the extensive Canyon Trail—mostly because we had kids in tow—we did complete three of the paths, including the Marsh Trail, the Mesquite Trail and the Desert Willow Trail.
In the marsh, a wooden boardwalk winds along a stream, past cottonwood, willow and alder trees. Cattails, watercress and goldenrods can be seen while three viewing decks offer spots to unwind and soak in the beauty. The boardwalk continued into the Mesquite Trail, which wound under green trees and past miniature waterfalls and ponds. The other walkway, a combination of sand and rich dirt, took us up and down hills and past desert cacti.
The entire park sits in the foothills of the mountains so, in addition to the fabulous scenery within, the views beyond are also gorgeous. Because it’s a preserve, wildlife flourishes, with everything from bobcats, mule deer, bighorn sheep and coyotes calling the park home. We didn’t see any of these larger mammals, or the snakes that are located here. But we did encounter various species of lizards and birds, including the bright blue California scrub jay.
A Town in the Middle of the California Desert
While most of the adventures to be had in the California desert involve hiking and rock climbing, one remains unique. Up in the hills of the Morongo Basin sits Pioneertown.
This historical town was first launched in the 1940s by an actor. Modeled after a town in the Wild West, it features a variety of wooden buildings that are used as a living movie set. Wander along Mane Street with your whole crew, strolling past a bank, a bathhouse, a jail, a bowling alley and more. A few of the buildings now house shops that you can stop by to browse for artisan goods. There is also a hotel located on site with a few cabins for rent as well.
But one of the biggest draws of Pioneertown is Pappy & Harriet’s, an old-fashioned honkey tonk that draws crowds from all over. Names like Maren Morris, Paul McCartney, Lorde and Rufus Wainwright, among many others, have performed at the California desert venue. It also doubles as a restaurant so we stopped in for dinner during our trip. With a live cover band prepping to take the stage, the atmosphere was electric and the joint was packed.
With craft cocktails on the menu, you can grab a drink before your meal. There are plenty of TexMex options—I opted for a chicken bowl with rice, beans, cheese and guacamole. But other meals include steaks, ribs, sandwiches, burgers, salads and appetizers like chili, nachos and cheese fries.
The whole town will make you feel like you’re being transported back in time to the 1880s. Cap off your trip to the California desert by visiting this one-of-a-kind place—after a few outdoor adventures, that is.